Yesterday was, supposedly, National Potato Day. It’s the second year of the attempt to turn our appreciation for the humble spud into a national holiday. I can’t really see it taking off, it’s not easy to start a whole new holiday. Although, the brains behind it, might benefit from studying the success of Arthurs Day, the celebration of Guinness that began three years ago as a once off anniversary celebration and was so successful that it has become an annual event. That, though, might have something to do with the appeal of drinking pints and pints of the black stuff at reduced prices and Guinness’s ever brilliant advertising campaigns encouraging us to paint the town black.
I can’t quite see national potato day having the same appeal, crowds of people coming together to eat some spuds, somebody would most likely bring poitin and everyone would just get drunk and lament about the famine, because, lets face it, it’s next to impossible to get Irish people to talk about spuds without mentioning the great hunger.
Inevitably, I got to thinking about blight, and the effect it had on my plot this year. Both my earlies and my main crop spuds were hit, reduced to nothing in the blink of an eye, and the once greenest pride of my plot, now lies bare, unusable for spuds for the next few years. That’s ok because I can grow something else there next year, it’s not a big disaster.
Digging up the blighted spuds was a bittersweet task. I couldn’t help but think about all of those people, poor and hungry, relying on their crop to sustain them, dying of starvation when the blight hit. Slaving away in workhouses for a morsel of food, only to die of hunger and exhaustion anyway. The cloying sickly sweet smell of the rotten potatoes, the soft black tubers, how it must have felt when their crops failed the first year, the second and the third. The struggle to feed their children, to keep their children alive. Leaving on the coffin ships, their only hope of survival, only to die of hunger or thirst or typhoid on the way to their new lives.
Today, I visited the Tall Ships Festival in Dublin. It was a wonderful event, the city was packed full of tourists, families, all having a great time down at the docks in the sunshine. While I was there, I saw a queue as long as I could see, for the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of one of the coffin ships, which made sixteen long voyages across the atlantic, full of emigrants leaving for a new life; and I thought to myself, we are so lucky to be here. Last year, myself and Dave visited Westport, Co. Mayo, one of my favourite parts of the country, and while we where there, we visited Croagh Patrick, and the National Famine Memorial monument at Murrisk at the base of the mountain, the bronze coffin ship with bones and skulls as its rigging, and it haunts me, that memorial, it aways has. It haunts me just how many people died on those ships, they knew death was inevitable and they went anyway, to escape the hell of hunger.
And as a new generation of Irish people leave these shores, looking for an escape from the hardships of our current economic climate, I realise, just how lucky we are, to know we’re not going to starve to death, to know we won’t die on the way to wherever it is we go. To be able to wait in line to see a coffin ship for fun and to be able to leave it alive. To be able to take pictures of it on our smart phones and drive home in our cars. To be able to have holidays, to have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and warm food in our bellies; and it makes me angry to think, just how far we’ve come to appreciate so little.
I thought of how very lucky I am, to be able to grow potatoes on a small plot of land and not see blight as a death sentence but as an adventure, and of just how much something as simple as some blighted potatoes on my allotment, can open my eyes to so much more than I ever thought it could.